An alternate system to help future astronauts escape their launch vehicle has been successfully demonstrated by Nasa at its Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, US.

A unmanned max launch abort system (MLAS) vehicle tested the possibility of safely propelling a future spacecraft and its crew away from a problem on the launch pad or during ascent.

The 33ft-high MLAS comprises four rocket abort motors with a bullet-shaped composite fairing attached to a full-scale mock-up of the crew module.

The vehicle was launched unpiloted to a height of around a mile to simulate an emergency on the launch pad.

During the demonstration the four solid rocket motors burned out and the crew module mock-up was separated from the vehicle seven seconds into the flight, before descending into the ocean with a parachute.

The test exhibited the unpowered flight of the MLAS along a stable trajectory, reorientation and stabilisation, separation of the crew module simulator from the abort motors and stabilisation and parachute recovery of the crew module simulator.

The demonstration was the first to test a passively stabilised launch abort system for a vehicle in this size and weight class. The test was also the first to attempt to acquire full-scale aero-acoustic data from a faired capsule in flight as well as the first to demonstrate full scale fairing and crew module separation.

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Nasa’s Engineering and Safety Center (NESC) supervised the project at Nasa’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

The name MLAS was given after Maxime Faget, a designer of the Project Mercury capsule and holder of the patent for the aerial capsule emergency separation device commonly known as the escape tower.